Tuesday, June 21, 2016

UPDATED: The Lowdown on Education and Schooling in Sri Lanka for Expats

One of the key questions for expat families moving to Sri Lanka concerns education and schooling. I've had a few questions come my way regarding what to expect over here and how to approach things. This is both an important and often stressful area of consideration as it determines your children's education, development and well-being while growing up in foreign country.

So let me start off with a few basics on the education system in Sri Lanka. Firstly, Sri Lanka's modern education system was developed under the influence of its British colonial history from around 1836 and the English language medium of instruction was promoted. The current Sri Lankan curriculum and examinations system is modeled on the British examinations system (i.e. GCE O-levels and A-levels).

Around 1942 a few changes in Sri Lanka took place to ensure all children had access to free education, national languages of Sinhala and Tamil were made the medium of instruction (as opposed to English) and other. The right to free education was written into the Constitution of Sri Lanka 1978, which mandates compulsory schooling for children between the ages of five and fourteen years old. These developments have contributed to the overall high literacy rate in Sri Lanka. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2015), almost 93% Sri Lanka's adult population and over 98% of the youth population are literate.

Current school system

Currently the schooling system in Sri Lanka is divided into five parts - primary, junior secondary, senior secondary, collegiate and tertiary, with the first four parts comprising 13 years (5+4+2+2) of school study. Many schools teach in only the Sinhala language medium or Tamil language medium, however there are private international schools that will teach in the English language medium (and sometimes all three). The academic school year for government schools runs from January to December and is divided into three terms. For private international schools the academic school year generally runs from August to July divided into three terms.

School hours are generally from 7.30am to around 2.30pm. It's an early start and finish due to the tropical climate in Sri Lanka. There has been some talk about extending school hours.

At the tertiary level, Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages of instruction, though English is frequently used. The academic year runs from October to June at this level. I won't be focusing on the tertiary level for this blog post as most expats are more concerned about primary to collegiate schooling.

There are five types of schools in Sri Lanka:
  • National schools - administered and funded by the Ministry of Education and were established during the colonial period
  • Provincial schools - majority of schools in Sri Lanka that are administered and funded by local provincial councils.
  • Private schools - these emerged during the colonial era and follow the local curriculum set up by the Ministry of Education in the local language mediums of Sinhala, Tamil or English. Some levy tuition fees while others do not.
  • Private international schools -  these schools charge tuition fees and are autonomous from the Ministry of Education. Attendance is open to locals and expat students who can pay the tuition costs (unlike in some countries where locals need to seek permission from the government). They offer the popular British Edexcel curriculum and examinations system, and to a lesser degree the Cambridge International Examinations system or the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.
  • Pirivena - schools offering free education to Buddhist monastics that are administered and funded by the Ministry of Education.

If you're wondering about the difference between GCSE, IGCSE, A levels and IB, this article "What’s The Difference Between GCSEs And IGCSEs, A Levels And IB?" published in the Huffington Post might offer some useful information.

Local school vs private international school

From an expat perspective, one of the fundamental questions is whether to send your child/children to a local school (national, provincial or private) or a private international school. Given the information I've provided above, there are a number of things to consider that range from:
  • quality of school - are there well-qualified and experienced teachers? do they offer a balanced curriculum? is there a good mix of students? are there good facilities? what extra-curricula activities are offered?
  • language medium - do you want your child to learn the local language or is English medium preferred?
  • budget - can you cover the cost of tuition fees for a private international school? is it included in your expat package?
  • location - where will you be based? will good schools be readily accessible?
  • curriculum requirements - does the curriculum align with your home country? will it enable a smooth transition for your children? will it meet your requirements for higher education requirements?
  • objectives for your children - do you want your child/children to to have a greater exposure to local life and culture? will they feel isolated or unhappy in different schools?
and so on.

If you are a well-traveled expat family that has moved around quite a lot, then you will already be familiar with this dilemma. Personally I don't have any children, but I have many expat friends living in Sri Lanka and around the globe that have children who have or are working through this. More often than not, my expat friends have placed their children in private international schools. There have been some interesting articles on this topic. I found this article "Some Singapore Expats Choose Local Education Over International Schools" in the Wall Street Journal very interesting.

Sri Lanka definitely has some excellent local schools, particularly the prestigious national schools scattered across the country though many are located around Colombo, such as Royal College, Ananda College, Visakha Vidyalaya, Devi Balika Vidyalaya. These prestigious national schools have some of the best facilities, teachers and examination results and don't cost an arm and a leg. However, the challenge for expats and their children is taking the leap of faith, overcoming the language and cultural hurdles, school zoning and the ability to gain admission. As you can well imagine, there is a highly competitive process to gain admission to one of the high ranking national schools.

To shed some light on the extent to which parents will go to gain admission for their children to one of the prestigious national schools, you only have to read some of the recent articles on the controversy involving some of the principals who were involved in unlawfully demanding money from for admissions. This Sunday Times article "Some principals, PPAs partners in school crimes" highlights some of the issues and the Ministry of Education has transferred out some of the principals from their prestigious posts.

Around Colombo, Kandy and Galle, it has been common practice for expats to send their children to a private international schools mainly because they teach in the English language medium, the quality of facilities, curriculum and teaching is considered better and ease of access. I also suspect it would be difficult for expats to gain admission for their children to the prestigious national schools, though I don't have any expat friends who have actually tried to do so.

Private international schools

The following schools have been recommended for consideration by expats. Expats in Sri Lanka have generally recommended checking out their websites to peruse the curriculum offered, location, tuition fees, teaching staff, facilities and other information. But more importantly, it is advised to arrange a physical visit to view the school(s) and meet with the principal or headmaster/headmistress to see whether the school meets your requirements.

There are some common challenges when it comes to schools in Sri Lanka:
  • the one that rears its ugly head a lot is the standard of English. Unfortunately, it varies from school to school, even across the tuition fee charging private international schools. I believe it comes down to the quality of good teaching staff with suitable qualifications and the ability to retain them. 
  • there is usually a deposit required for a place at a private international school. If you end up deciding to withdraw your children from the school after a couple of months, it may be a good idea to negotiate upfront (and get a written agreement) for a reimbursement of  your deposit if this were to happen. it may not be possible in some cases, but worth putting on the table.
  • it can also be competitive to gain admission to some of the private international schools in Colombo particularly because there is a high demand among the Sri Lankan elite to send their children to the so-called reputable international schools. So, just be aware of this when  making up your mind about the schools
  • some of the private international schools are charging quite high fees so make sure you're satisfied with the facilities, teaching staff, quality, curriculum, uniform, extra-curricula actvities etc. before signing up.

So, a quick summary of the main private international schools, mainly around Colombo (but a few in Kandy and Galle):

British School in Colombo - co-ed school located in Colombo 08 accepting students aged between two and a half to 18 years. Offers the English National Curriculum and Cambridge International examinations system.

Overseas School in Colombo - co-ed school located in Battaramulla accepting students aged between three to eighteen years. Offers the International Baccalaureate curriculum and examinations system.

Asian International School - co-ed school located in Colombo 5 accepting students aged between pre-school age to 18 years. Offers the British Edexcel curriculum and examinations system.

Colombo International School - co-ed school located in Rajagiriya (and Kandy) accepting students aged between pre-school age to 18 years. Offers the British Edexcel curriculum and examinations system.

Elizabeth Moir School - co-ed school located in Colombo 5 (primary and secondary schools are in different locations) owned and run by British nationals, accepting accepting students aged between two and a half to 18 years. Offers the English National Curriculum and examinations system.

Gateway College  - co-ed school located in Rajagiriya (and Kandy) accepting students aged between two and half to 18 years. Offers the English National Curriculum and is accredited to offer both the British Edexcel and Cambridge examinations systems.

Wycherley International School - co-ed school located in Colombo 7 (primary) and Colombo 3 (secondary) accepting students from grades one to 13. Offers the English National Curriculum and Cambridge International examinations system.

French International School - small co-ed school located in Colombo 5 accepting students aged between two to 18 years of French and foreign citizenship temporarily or permanently living in Sri Lanka to access an education conform to the requirements of the French Ministry of Education. Offers a bilingual education (French/ English) to children from two to 11 years old, conforming with the official French curriculum. The school is part of the French Schools Abroad network  and is fully endorsed by the Ministry of Education in France. The School is managed by the children’s parents, organized in a non-profit-making association. For the Secondary School, teaching is assumed by the National Center for Distance Learning, enabled by pedagogical assistants who help with work organization and understanding of the lessons. This can prepare secondary students at all levels of the Baccalaureate curriculum up to French National Examinations.

Thomas Gall School - is a small co-ed school located in Galle accepting students from play group through to grade eight.

Galle International College - is a co-ed school located in Galle accepting students aged between two to 18 years. Offers the English National Curriculum and Cambridge International examinations system.


As with most Asian countries, out-of-school tuition is a common practice in Sri Lanka. Most local students attend some kind of tuition classes after school and/or on the weekends (or during term breaks) in most of their subjects. Most will be offered in the local language medium.

Expats are generally not terribly fussed about private tuition or tuition classes for their children, especially for primary and junior secondary schooling.

However, if needed, it is possible to access English language medium small group tuition classes or private individual tuition for Edexcel or Cambridge courses. These are offered by local tuition businesses as well as local teachers.

As an example, one of my good friends sends her daughter to a maths and science tuition class in Colombo run by teacher. She charges LKR1,000 for a two hour class with around 20 students in attendance. The same teacher is also available for private tuition at similar charges.

Homeschooling / Home Education

As far as I can tell it is possible to homeschool your children in Sri Lanka. I couldn't find any legislation or Ministry of Education regulations or circulars regarding home education or equivalency that would indicate it was illegal. Typically visitors and expats are not obligated to follow local education laws, or it is somewhat vague. And, I have read or heard of expats in Sri Lanka who have or are homeschooling their children here. This is good news if you are looking into this option because you don't wish to place your children in one of the local, private or international private schools in Sri Lanka. As an aside, none of my expat friends with children are homeschooling.

There are actually some countries where it is illegal and you are banned from home schooling your children. Note that these laws generally apply to the citizens of those countries. There is a list of about thirty countries that have explicitly banned home schooling within their national laws. This includes countries like Brazil, Croatia, Greece, and Turkey. Other countries allow limited homeschooling with heavy restrictions. For example, Germany will only allow homeschooling where attending school creates undue hardship on the child. I wonder what the criteria the government would apply to ascertain and rule on this.

It is rare to hear of locals homeschooling their children in Sri Lanka. However, there are expats who do choose this option for their own personal reasons. In countries where homeschooling is more readily chosen, there are usually good support networks and playgroups for both homeschooled children and their parents. I'm not sure that such networks exist in Sri Lanka given that it is not a common occurrence and the smaller expat community. However, I could be misinformed. Another option may be to hire a teacher to come on a regular basis (as an addition to your own parental involvement) to offer extra educational support to your children. This might be a relatively affordable option for expats.

If you are considering homeschooling there are a few important things to consider, some I have already alluded to, such as curriculum, parental involvement, time management, socialization for your children, financial and other. From an expat perspective, if you are an accompanying spouse and family the homeschooling option may be attractive depending on the ages of your children (i.e. it can be more appealing if you have children that are younger in age) and you could plan a variety of socialization activities around local excursions, playgroups, sports and so on. Having said that, if your kids are in their late teens and heading towards their final exams homeschooling probably won't be suitable.

Curriculum is probably one of the key things when it comes down to homeschooling. If your home country is more open to home schooling (i.e. countries like the UK, USA, Australia) then there are plenty of resources that can be accessed that make it a whole lot easier to action as well as to ensure that what you are using passes all the equivalency tests for when your children rejoin the school system or sit the relevant examinations. In addition, there are numerous organizations that have all the schoolwork, lists and resources that you can access.

It is advisable to research and access (and register where required) in your home country (your relevant State for the USA - note, some states do not require any notice of intent) in advance of your move so that you have worked out how best to proceed, the costs, the resources you require and to enable a smooth transition for your children.

Have a look at Home Education - UK if you're interested what the British government advises. Interestingly, it states "As a parent, you must make sure your child receives a full-time education from the age of 5 but you don’t have to follow the national curriculum". 

For the United States, you'll need to refer to the requirements of your State legislation. Some states still require parents to obtain approval prior to homeschooling. There are multiple information sources on this so I won't be listing those here. However, the US State Department does list some useful programs and resources on its Home Schooling and Online Education webpage.

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So that's all I have for now on education and schooling for expats.

If there's something I've missed or you'd like to add, please drop me a comment below or email or Facebook message me.

Wishing a successful and easeful transition to Sri Lanka for you and your children.


Yasela said...

it seems to me that private international schools are the only available option for an expact or at least person who has no long past record of his residential evidences .

The admission to local system is so difficult and competitive. the documentation and the evidences that one has to provide in the admission is so rigorous and even a native parents who relocate to new place are unable to provide those. for example one has to submit the registration from the department of election commission as a proof of their residential address for at least 5 consecutive years.

however privately managed government schools such as st.josephs, colombo, Trinity Kandy are few options that one can look who willing to integrate to local syllabus,

Eva Stone said...

Thanks for your comments Yasela. I've heard it's difficult to get admission into the local system, but good advice about the privately managed government schools should expats wish to consider.

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